Hi all, here’s an update on my research! Last week I went to Ottawa to look at some documents in the national archives. My first time ever going to the archives, I had to navigate the process of finding collections, requesting them, filling out various permission forms and finally getting to read through the materials. Being able to touch these documents from the late 18th and early 19th centuries is just one of the things that I love about getting to do a thesis… it creates a closer connection to the people that I’m learning about.
This week was all about the Hamilton family. As I’ve mentioned a few times already in past blog posts, Robert Hamilton was Niagara’s most prominent merchant during the Loyalist era, especially in the late 18th century. Unfortunately, a tidy set of Robert Hamilton’s papers does not exist in any archives, so I had to look through a few different collections while in Ottawa.
“There is now no substantial group of documentation that could be called the Robert Hamilton Papers nor is there a major set of papers for any of his Niagara contemporaries before 1812. On the other side of the coin, there is a distinct lack of census data, detailed parish registers, assessment rolls or any broadly representative collection of will dockets on which quantified studies of Niagara society could be securely based. Even significant runs of newspapers and that traditional mainstay of the historian, papers of administrators and colonial politicians are mostly prominent by their absence.”Bruce Wilson, The Enterprises of Robert Hamilton, (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1983), 3.
Examining a few different collections throughout the week, I took approximately 800 photos! I look forward to reading through the material more closely over the next few months and adding the people, places, and things that R. Hamilton makes note of, into my data set. Some of these materials include:
- His three-part census of settlers in Niagara in 1787, which is one of the earliest available listings of households in Niagara post-Revolution.
- His day book from 1807-1809
- His ledger from 1806-1809
- His will, wherein he divides his land and possessions between his children, listing where he owned property and explaining what roles his sons will have in the family business after his passing (in March 1809)
I also accessed some of Hamilton’s correspondence by looking at the Francis Goring fonds and John Porteous fonds, as these men both had close ties with Hamilton in Niagara. Goring was a clerk at Fort Niagara from 1779-1781 and secretary to Hamilton from 1800-1809. Much of his work involved riding around the Niagara region and collecting debts owed to Hamilton. One particularly interesting document titled “Statement of Facts of business done for the late Hon. Robert Hamilton” provides us with an explanation of Goring’s role in Hamilton’s life for those last nine years (see document and transcription below). Similarly, Porteous was a merchant in Detroit who also had routine correspondence with Hamilton as they regularly traded goods.
Statement of Facts of business done for the lat Hon. Robert Hamilton Esq. by Fras. Goring
“My first commencement to do business for Mr. Hamilton was in 1800. Mr. Hamilton asked me if I could make it convenient to assist him, and he would make it worth my while, to which I complied, he then held a Bond against me for £ 51-9-3 N. Y. Cy. dated Jan 11th 1798 (Note). Interest is charge me on bond from Nov. 1st 1799 until Nov. 1st 1808 which is a certain proof I could not be in debt. 1 Years Interest to Nov 1st 1810 is afterwards charged me by the Estate.
For the Three first years, that is, 1800 1801 & 1802 my employment was to write the accompts and letters to those indebted to him, dating the amount of their accompts and other writing business; the letters directed within 12 miles I mostly delivered and received their answers- which I entered in a memorandum book I kept on purpose, the distant letters were send in packets to someone in the different neighbourhoods to be distributed. After doing the above business for Mr. Hamilton Three years, and he finding by sending those letters by indifferent persons they frequently miscarried and he received no answer, he asked me on the fourth year, after writing them if I would undertake to deliver them myself, which I Promised to do, and procured their answer to Mr. Hamiltons satisfaction. This business I followed for Eight years, besides frequently writing for him at his House three and four weeks at a time and once in particular six weeks.
The first six years I traveled on foot and it being always in Winter made it very tedious, the Inclemency of the weather never stoped me, except Rain during the whole time, tho I must own I frequently suffered much. The usual time it took me was generally Six weeks in distributing between 5 and 600 letters and procuring answers with my own remarks (for at Mr. Hamiltons request I kept a Journal of all occurrencies). I have on one Winter traversed over Twenty two Townships, and have traversed to Ancaster twice in one Winter. (I say traversed for I was seldom on the direct road.) I have even in Harvest left my own to attend on Mr. Hamiltons business, and obliged to hire an other in my stead.”
Most of the Hamilton collection at the national archives is dated after Robert’s passing. From 1809 onward, his sons George and Alexander tried to collect the debts that were owed to their father, evident in the stacks of invoices and receipts found in one of the folders. According to historian Bruce Wilson, £16000 of the £69000 owed to Hamilton was unrecoverable. £23000 was still outstanding as late as 1823.
I was still able to examine one day book and one ledger that date pre-1809. Day books contain entries of accounts with multiple people in the same day, while ledgers contain entries on individual accounts over a period of weeks and months. These books were written in by Robert and his sons, since both books extend into November and December of 1809. The day book was from his Queenston store and records the purchase of material goods like tobacco, beef, and tea, payment for farm labour, and the portage of barrels of flour up the Niagara river to Chippewa and Fort Erie.
When reading the names of the customers in this day book, I note the variety of people that interacted with the Hamiltons in this burgeoning economy. Scattered amongst the dominantly male Anglo names were accounts like “Polly servant girl” who ordered 5 yards of cloth, a cash payment for “5 Frenchman hoeing Corn”, “1 pair shoe packs” for “Black Tom” and a hasty note that says “paid Indian for sugar” (costing 4 shillings). It is important to see how these figures fit into the story of economic and material development in Niagara’s Loyalist era and I am excited to dig deeper into these connections.
As I continue to work through these photos and scans, stay tuned for a future post on my discoveries from the Hamilton papers!
The last time I was in Ottawa was about 8 years ago. When I wasn’t in the archives, I was able to see some of the city… Ottawa is beautiful in the summer!